“It’s true, you know. In space, no one can hear you scream like a little girl.”
I have a bit of a lover’s quarrel with this one. The plot (lone crew member gets stranded on Mars), setting (Mars) and scientific integrity (there’s a lot of good science here) would seem to be the perfect blend for a target audience that is me. But then there’s Mark Watney, or as I like to call him: the teenager in an EVA suit. Crafted of equal parts cocky and corny, The Martian‘s main character makes the male cohort on The Big Bang Theory seem downright intoxicating. Each time you’re about to settle into the sci-fi goodness unfolding on the blood-red planet, Watney’s juvenility and hackeneyed attempts at humor rear up to depressurize the drama and poison the narrative atmosphere. I did not connect with this character, at all.
Here’s an exchange between Watney and NASA Mission Control in which Watney can’t help but lay on the prepubescent charm:
[11:49] JPL: What we can see of your planned cut looks good. We’re assuming the other side is identical. You’re cleared to start drilling.
[12:07] Watney: That’s what she said.
[12:04] JPL: We’ll get botanists in to ask detailed questions and double-check your work. Your life is at stake, so we want to be sure. Also, please watch your language. Everything you type is being broadcast live all over the world.
[12:15] Watney: Look! A pair of boobs! -> (.Y.)
…What am I reading? Is this sci-fi or middle school? I’m all for bucking stereotypes—like the urbane, straight-laced NASA astronaut Weir apparently had in mind—but Watney is a stride too far in the opposite direction. On occasion the dullish teen-speak gives way to genuine wit, but such instances are too few and far between that the bad taste in my mouth never left. That said, I do expect reader mileage to vary on this score.
I could probably look the other way if the supporting cast were infused with greater dimensionality, but it’s hardly the case. The crew deliver dialogue every bit as stilted and cliched, their interactions adding nothing of substance to the narrative. Here’s one crew member chatting with his wife back home:
Marissa: “I have to wait another 533 days to get laid!”
Martinez: “So do I,” he said defensively.
A World Away
But not even Watney’s itchy tongue and forgettable dialogue are enough to dash an epic quest on a foreign world. This is Mars after all, our second closest neighbor and perennial sci-fi favorite. In this outing a crew of six travel to Mars for NASA’s third manned mission, known as Ares 3. While out on expedition, a nasty storm sweeps up and amid the chaos one crew member is struck by a wayward antenna carried by the high-powered surface winds. With his comms no longer transmitting, the crew is unable to locate the downed engineer. Fearing the destruction of their return vehicle, the crew abandon the search and conclude that Mars has claimed its first human casualty.
Except Ares 3 leaves behind more than an unforgivable environment. They leave one of their own, bruised and battered, but not exactly dead. It’s now Watney vs. the Red Planet, a match less lopsided than one might think. Mars’ razor thin atmosphere, brutal cold, active weather and craggy terrain all serve as redoubtable antagonists Watney must overcome to secure a return trip home. Imagine being all alone on a planet climatically hostile to your kind of life with dwindling resources, no return vessel and no contact with the only people who can bring you one. Even the best odds of survival would be Planck length-low.
Fortunately, our deserted soul is no slouch. What Watney lacks in charisma he more than makes up for in sheer intelligence and technical brilliance. Mars’ first “colonizer” wears the hats of botanist and mechanical engineer, and is a person for whom “asleep at the wheel” would be a most inapt descriptor. If MacGyver, Rube Goldberg and Robinson Crusoe were to have some kind of hybrid child, Watney would be it. The man’s a dynamo, as pragmatically minded, resourceful and resilient as they come. It’s probably why he was chosen for a NASA mission.
He’s also utterly determined to make it back to Earth. As Watney awakes groggy-eyed and the true extent of his plight comes into focus, his indomitable survivalism takes over and doesn’t let up. He quickly realizes it will require every ounce of his scientific acumen to hold out until the next scheduled NASA mission, at which time an aghast Ares 4 crew would set eyes on one weary astronaut. His botany training is put to immediate use by creating a renewable source of food from little more than potato seeds and “homegrown” fertilizer. He employs some fancy chemistry in order to maintain a breathable atmosphere and reliable (though radiatively unstable) heat source. And every whit of Watney’s engineering know-how is spent on preparing the rover for a transplanetary jaunt over Mars’ surly, rough-and-tumble terrain.
Watney’s time on Mars is relayed through daily first-person logs that record his progress in addition to a few clunky transitions to third-person omniscient. Provided you don’t mind being submerged in technical detail, these logs may just win you over as they did me. This is science at its most raw and ad hoc. The meticulous cataloging succeeds in connecting you to the action as Watney slaps together one near-suicidal scheme after another. Just as we might expect of someone marooned 140 million miles (annual average) from all of civilization, our hero is never allowed too much comfort. Part of the allure is seeing what hellish scenario presents itself next and how Watney’s ingenuity and moxie will combine to solve it away. Better yet, all of the science here is kosher, otherwise known as “hard” sci-fi. Watney won’t run into any boogeymen or Martian monsters in this one, but the trials he does chance upon are every bit as deadly. With each setback and triumph, no specifics are spared the reader, as complex concepts are unspooled with ease and clarity.
Andy Weir, something of a prodigy himself, started out as a computer programmer at age 15. For him, science can be both a hobby and a narrative device. But Weir’s goal was not just to use sciencey tropes to drive the story forward, but to make Watney’s exploits as scientifically plausible as possible. He released some early chapters online as a free serial novel, which quickly garnered interest from fans and scientists alike. Weir incorporated their technical feedback for the final print edition, making The Martian a kind of collective effort by science enthusiasts.
What results is a unique blend of survivalist sci-fi and problem-solving escapades told through excruciatingly detailed science. Could one human really survive on Mars with standard NASA equipage? The answer is surely yes, if Watney has anything to say about it. All of his interdisciplinary expertise is on display for the reader to either absorb, deconstruct and debunk, or skim over until the next existential disaster strikes. Technical readers will fall head over heels working through the minutia, while the less initiated may find their eyes glazing over, but both audiences will come away having learned something new. The thoroughness of it all is really what pulled me in and lent the story its strong scent of credibility. There’s no deus ex machina here. If Watney didn’t die in the previous chapter, it’s because he used science to decatastrophize the latest curveball Mars threw his way. It’s satisfying in a way that “softer” sci-fi tropes aren’t.
Don’t Leave Home Without Them
Before wrapping up the review, I thought I’d briefly walk through a few pieces of equipment that recur throughout the story. These are absolutely vital to Watney’s survival, and given how often they’re mentioned it might be helpful to have a quick reference here for those looking to embark on Weir’s planetary safari. The “Big Three” are:
- Oxygenator. A machine that strips apart the carbon atoms from the CO2 that Watney exhales and retains the oxygen atoms. Relies on the atmospheric regulator for the CO2; worthless without it.
- Atmospheric regulator. A machine that monitors the molecular gas concentrations in the air, removing and resupplying CO2 and O2 as necessary. Too much oxygen (oxygen toxicity) is just as dangerous as too much carbon dioxide (hypercapnia).
- Water reclaimer. A machine that salvages and purifies water from virtually anything that gives off moisture, including humidity from the air when Watney exhales or sweats in the pressurized environments, waste waters from the Hab’s fuel cells, and even Watney’s urine. If this sounds disgusting, it’s worth noting that the reclaimers NASA employs on their manned missions use three-step purification.
In The Martian, science is front and center, assuming the roles of protagonist and antagonist and is the driving mechanism that allows forward progress for the hero. If chemistry, biology and physics aren’t your speed, you won’t last long on this cerebral joyride. Much of the narrative hovers just on the edge of possible, and Weir’s technical accuracy and attention to detail were more than enough to keep me glued, even if Watney’s unsavory personality and the stilted character interactions frequently left me out in the cold. Were the grade-school script and throwaway dialogue intentional juxtapositions to compensate for the technical nature of much of the rest of the book—a lighthearted, expletive-suffused respite to allow your brain a cooldown period from the stress and heavy lifting? Perhaps, but I think they could have been handled much better, as I found the contrast jarring, often piercing the tension at several inopportune moments. I also simply found the attempts at humor largely nonfunctional, though I acknowledge the subjectivity on this account.
Quibbles aside, The Martian is well researched space fiction that manages to capture mankind’s relentless will to survive, an orchestra of science in which limited resources and unlimited creativity battle to the last breath.